Please Don't Bait the Schmucks

Author:
Publish date:

With all the WGA strike-related activity, one thing this writing blog hasn’t devoted much time to is actual writing. But this is, of course, a Writers Digest blog, and if there’s one thing WD does well, it’s talk about writing. And inspire writers. And offer bits of writing info and advice. (Okay, that’s actually three—or maybe even four—things.) And this blog is no different. So I wanted to talk today about an issue which—while taking up less of the spotlight—is just as pressing and urgent as the writers strike:

Schmuck Bait.

What prompted me to tackle this thorny issue was an incident that recently occurred in the weekly TV spec-writing class I teach for mediabistro.com.

One of my students was writing a spec script of The Office. I won’t go into the plot of his script, but the second act break involved Michael Scott getting fired. Obviously, a bold, dramatic move. It poses dire consequences for every character in the script. And it creates huge conflict within the world of the show. All good elements in creating compelling drama.

It’s also Schmuck Bait.

A sitcom term, “Schmuck Bait” usually refers to plot points that—while potentially explosive and dramatic—actually just do nothing but create false jeopardy. They promise consequences and courses of action that can’t possibly occur.

Firing Michael Scott, for instance,especially in a sample spec script, is certainly “Schmuck Bait,” because no rational reader is ever going to believe that Michael Scott is genuinely going to be fired from Dunder Mifflin. Without Michael Scott, there’s no show… so firing him only creates false jeopardy.

A similar Schmuck Bait might be on, say, 24, if an episode ends with a cliffhanger suggesting Jack Bauer has been killed. Sure, it’s a great cliffhanger, but no one—except maybe a genuine schmuck—is actually going to believe that Jack Bauer, the central character of the entire series, is dead.

Thus, Schmuck Bait is a dramatic twist, or turn of events, that doesn’t tease or “bait” anyone but… well… schmucks.

The problem with Schmuck Bait is that it’s seductively easy to use. I mean, if you’re writing The Office and need a gripping second act break, what could be more riveting than firing the main character?!

But there are two problems with Schmuck Bait. One: it’s false jeopardy. And two: it’s often generic, rarely stemming from the central conflict of the story. I.e., the idea of Michael getting fired could be used in virtually any episode of The Office. It’s totally non-specific. And this is where the solution comes in.

Most people—without even knowing it—turn to Schmuck Bait when they’ve lost sight of their script’s main problem or story engine. If you’re writing a spec for The Office, for instance, in which Michael desperately wants to win an annual Dunder Mifflin award, it would be easy to engineer a schmuck-baiting second act break—the cliffhanger in which all seems lost—where his shenanigans get him fired. But the driving force of your spec is Michael’s desire to win the award, not keep his job, so the cliffhanger should pertain directly to his current desire. I.e., it should be a moment in which Michael thinks he has lost all chances of winning the award. Losing his job is certainly dramatic, but not only is it unbelievable, it has nothing to do specifically with your story.

A less schmuck-baity second act break might be Michael losing the one account that would allow him to win. Or learning someone else is announced as the winner. Or withdrawing from the contest. You can choose whatever it is… as long as it’s something that could actually happen in the course of the series… and is also a logical extension of the central conflict.

So next time you’re worrying whether or not you’re incorporating Schmuck Bait, take a look at your script’s central premise. Ask yourself: “what’s the worst possible outcome of this particular premise?” Is it Michael Scott losing a contest? Terrorist’s killing Jack Bauer’s important prisoner? Meredith Grey’s favorite patient dying? This answer should guide you in the right direction.

Because when you try using Schmuck Bait, the only one who ends up looking like a schmuck… is you.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 19

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an animal title poem.

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Presenting the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest featuring a collection of articles about how curiosity fuels writers, including the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites for Writers and a new interview with Chris Bohjalian.

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Popular lecturer and biographer Joshua M. Greene discusses the hardship of writing the biographies of Holocaust survivors, and the biography that convinced him to continue writing.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: The May/June 2021 Issue, a Chance at Publication, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce that the May/June 2021 “Curiosity” issue is now live in the WD shop, there’s still time to have your From Our Reader’s response selected for publication in the July/August 2021 “Bravery” issue, and more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 18

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an ekphrastic poem.

Personal Essay Awards

Announcing the First Annual Personal Essay Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the first annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards!

From Script

Movie Theatres Return While Indie Cinema and TV Turns to Horror and Beyond (From Script)

In this week’s round-up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, read movie reviews from cinephile Tom Stemple. Plus, exclusive interviews with Amazon’s Them creator and showrunner Little Marvin, horror film Jakob’s Wife director Travis Stevens, a history lesson with Dr. Rosanne Welch about trailblazer screenwriter Anita Loos, and much more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 17

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a waiting poem.

GettyImages-119430542

Your Story #112

Write the opening line to a story based on the photo prompt below. (One sentence only.) You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.